All Classical Radio James Depreist

“This makes me think of you”: A conversation with Ringdown’s Danni Lee and Caroline Shaw

The duo discusses how they met, where the name comes from, their recent deal with Nonesuch Records, the “Voice Memo Roulette” game, and a method for using Brahms chords.

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Ringdown: Caroline Shaw (left) and Danni Lee (right). Photo by Anja Schutz.
Ringdown: Caroline Shaw (left) and Danni Lee (right). Photo by Anja Schutz.

There’s an old joke about Carnegie Hall that’s so old there’s a version with a beatnik in it. That one goes like this:

Tourist, lost in New York City, stops a beatnik on the street: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

Beatnik: “Practice, man, practice.”

Another version goes like this:

Tourist, lost in New York City, stops Leonard Bernstein on the street: “Excuse me, maestro, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

Bernstein: “Work your ass off and hope Bruno Walter gets the flu.”

We could go on all day like that, we really could. But we’re here to talk about Ringdown, an Oregon duo performing at Carnegie Hall in May (hence the jokes) as part of an astonishing debut run that also includes appearances at Alberta Abbey in Portland earlier this month, SXSW in Austin last week, Big Ears Festival in Knoxville this weekend, and performances next month at the vegan cafe Public Records in Brooklyn and the Thüringer Bach Festival in Erfurt. They’ve recently signed with the amazingly diverse record label Nonesuch, who released their fourth single “Two-Step” today. You can hear that right here:

Favorite lines from that one? These:

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Sever ties
With everything that you’ve rehearsed, switch the chorus and the verse
Harmonize with
Dancing like you walk on air, dancing like you just don’t care

Half of Ringdown was already signed to Nonesuch under her own name, which is Caroline Shaw. Some highlights on that label include Shaw’s work with Attacca Quartet (Orange and Evergreen) and Sō Percussion (Narrow Sea and Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part). We here at ArtsWatch have already spent plenty of time discussing this award-winning composer, whom we consider a serious contender for Greatest Living American Composer (read our various features here, here, here, here, here, and here). So we’d like to spend a little time introducing the other half of Ringdown, Shaw’s life- and music-partner, singer-songwriter-ukulelist Danni Lee.

Let’s start with that ukulele. Many of you probably consider it a somewhat twee instrument, sweet and simple and certainly not serious. You’re wrong, of course, but you’re wrong in an interesting way. Because although it’s true that the uke has a long history of being associated with comedy and with novelty music and so on, that very bias reveals how much human truth is yet contained in “mere humor” and “pop music.” Consider the various famous ukulele players that likely come first to mind, a motley cast which will vary according to your generation and taste: Cliff Edwards, Tiny Tim, Bette Midler, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Kate Micucci, Zooey Deschanel, Jake Shimabukuro. These are all people who, if we may be forgiven a phrase from Nietzsche, “kill the spirit of gravity.”

Lee fits right in there. She sometimes likes to plug her uke into an amplifier, run it through effects pedals, maybe play it with a violin bow. Her songs are heartfelt, sure, but with a heavy dose of detached humor that can be disarming or debilitating, depending on how you take it. Consider a song like “Narcissist” off her album Truth Teller, which has lines like these:

That sweet song wasn’t about you, babe
But this one sure is

…and these:

You remind me of something I recently read
An accusation from the lips of a narcissist
Is how they confess

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So much for the ukulele. Let’s consider Lee’s voice. Listen to this:

Yow! Immediately it all starts to fall into place. Hopefully you’re not enough of a snob to be all like, “what’s a Pulitzer-winning composer doing with some Portlandia ukulele player?” But if this uncharitable thought had crossed your mind, here’s your answer. Lee’s voice is dynamite–and a perfect complement to Shaw’s. Overall the match is just right: Shaw’s music and lyrics can often be the best kind of abstract and cerebral; Lee’s is immediate, direct, down-to-earth; it’s a definite “peanut butter and chocolate” situation.

What’s interesting to the present author, having followed Shaw’s career with interest for some time, is how important vocal collaboration and authenticity has always been to the trajectory of her work. She cut her teeth singing with Roomful of Teeth, an avant-garde vocal octet; she won her notorious Pulitzer with them. She’s composed for superstar classical vocalists like Anne Sofie von Otter (Is A Rose) and Dawn Upshaw (Narrow Sea). Yet as soon as she started really singing her own music–let’s date that from this 2019 performance of “And So”–that’s when she really arrived. 

She doesn’t have one of those grand, Carnegie Hall-filling voices like von Otter and Upshaw; she sings like a violinist. But there’s where the authenticity comes in: absolutely nobody else sounds like Caroline Shaw. When I say “she sings like a violinist,” I mean it in precisely the same sense that Leonard Cohen sang like a poet and PJ Harvey sings like a saxophonist. You can hear Shaw’s voice quite distinctly on the most recent Roomful of Teeth Grammy-winning album, Rough Magic. You can’t not hear her.

Shaw’s voice is powerful in that way. Consider “Little Seeds,” another song off Truth Teller and one of the duo’s first duets:

Lee takes the lead–it’s her song, after all–and when Shaw starts plucking a countermelody on her violin and comes in on the vocal harmony, it’s, well, I mean…you know what, dear reader, there’s really no other word for it. It’s perfect.

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As for the band, the briefest possible backstory is this: Lee met Shaw via Third Angle in 2020; they stayed in touch through the pandemic; Shaw sang on Lee’s album and moved to Oregon; now they’re writing songs together and riffing on Brahms and Haydn and Willie Nelson and getting ready for Carnegie Hall. We feel extremely privileged to have caught them near the beginning of their story, and we’re beyond stoked about what they’ll do next.

On a lovely late winter day in early March, we got on the phone with Lee and Shaw to discuss their band’s past, present, and future. And although their answers have (per the usual) been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and flow, we have left their conversation as much intact as possible.

Ringdown at Alberta Abbey 

Oregon Arts Watch: How was the Alberta Abbey concert? 

Caroline Shaw: It was an amazing lineup. It was a beautiful reminder of why we chose Portland to be our home base. There’s so much talent in this town. It was a really beautiful night with all our talented friends. 

Danni Lee: Hannah Glavor was the surprise guest. We were really lucky that she was available and could come play with us last minute. Caroline and I are both actively trying to think of other situations where we could share the stage with her because she’s just a powerhouse. She’s very funny. You meet someone who has so much talent, and you sort of expect them to be a little fussy. And we’ve seen her perform one other time in a situation where the sound was not ideal, there were things going wrong, and she was just like, “yeah, whatever, chill, I’m just going to keep going.” And you’re like “that’s actual talent!” You know, someone who can just roll with the punches and not be fazed.

Meetings

OAW: How did you meet? 

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DL: Ha! We laugh because whenever we are asked this question, I tell a version that’s about three years long with lots of detail, and Caroline can tell it in about 3 seconds. And whenever I start answering, she just cringes. So, Caroline, do you want to try your “shortened for text purposes” version? 

CS: Here’s the short version: I met Danni very briefly right before the pandemic in Portland. But then not again until a couple of years later and she asked me to sing harmonies on her album. We met to record that, and in one day I fell in love with her and changed my life. 

OAW: OK, let’s have the long version. 

DL: My version is always, like, “we met and we stayed Instagram friends, all above the table, nothing inappropriate, there was no flirtation, just friendly messages.” And we kept that up for about two years. And then I put a video out on TikTok during the pandemic where you could duet with people, and she messaged me, “what is this sorcery? How do you do that?” I said it’s this fun new thing called TikTok, and I taught her how to duet with someone. And then a couple days later, I posted an original song and said, “hey, if you want to make a duet, now’s the time, I just posted an original.” And so she did, and she posted it. And this is the part that Caroline hates when I tell it, because I think if you go to Caroline Shaw’s TikTok and you watch that video, she is flirting up a storm!– 

CS: No! I am not!

DL: –and her version is that she’s not flirting, she just really loves music. And then from there, she was singing on my album and then I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and then I had to push up the recording of my album, and then I was like, “are you available?” And she was like, “no!” But we found a time to meet and record and that’s where Caroline’s version starts.

OAW: But how did you meet meet? Who introduced you? Caroline, this would have been right around when you were in town for the Third Angle concerts that March, right? 

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DL: I was working for a marketing agency in Portland who was working with Third Angle at the time, and on one of my first days there was a flyer on the table for that concert, and I saw the photo of Caroline, and I picked it up and I looked over at Liz Bacon who owns the agency–the agency is called Oh! Creative–and I said, “who is this?” And she was like, “oh, that’s Caroline Shaw, you’d really love her music.” And I was like, “does this person live in Portland?” And she was like, “no.” And I was like, “this is my wife.” I’d never had that experience before. I knew nothing about her, nothing about her music. But just based off that picture, I was like, “I know this person. This person is meant to be in my life.” Which I suppose, depending on how you read that, it could either be really sweet or totally creepy. 

On Collaboration 

OAW: What is your creative process like? How do you create music together? 

CS: I think it’s sort of evolving. We started out by just saying “OK, what’s the music that we both really enjoy?” And I think the first thing I ever made for the project, before we even had a name maybe – was “Reckoning” the first thing? 

DL: I think so, yeah.

CS: It started out as building a few chords and Danni making lyrics and melody with them, and then later producing something more like a track. I like building a musical world with Logic, or with different harmonies and materials, and then Danni takes that through her own magical brain, writing lyrics and finding the melody on top. But more recently I think that process is joined. So we’re both doing a little bit of both, and we’ve set up a good mad scientist rehearsal space in the basement where we have to now define “are we in experiment mode or rehearsal mode? Are we just trying things out and seeing what comes out, or are we kind of crafting and really fine tuning an existing song?” I think that’s been a really helpful first question to start any sort of collaboration session: “Is this the time of exploration or is this the time of practice?” There are certain songs that have maybe had a slightly different beginning, like “Thirst.” In a chamber music concert of all the Brahms violin sonatas, there was one particular moment in the slow movement of the G major Sonata when Danni turned to me and grabbed my arm and was like, “this part!”

DL: I think I said, “this part feels modern!” And then we took those chords and we went back to our room and looped them and immediately, I think probably within an afternoon, made the song that is out now called “Thirst.”

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CS: There’s another one, “Teach Me,” which we haven’t even really recorded yet, which came from a very old voice memo of mine when I was just improvising on piano. It’s these chords from a Haydn string quartet, just playing with them and going other places, and I had it on a voice memo. 

DL: Caroline and I play this game I call Voice Memo Roulette, where you quickly scroll through the other person’s voice memos and you land on one and you get to hear it–they have to play it for you. 

CS: Which is terrifying. 

OAW: Good lord, that is terrifying. 

DL: Because I think, yeah, as musicians you all have this really embarrassing “driving in the car idea.” But in one of those rounds of Voice Memo Roulette I clicked on something that was the Haydn chords. And then I was like, “you have to send this to me, I love this!” And then the chords reminded me of some lyrics that I had written years before, but I had never really felt like it was the right time for them to be born. And they worked with that progression. And then the crazy thing is I went back in my voice memos to try to find my embarrassing recording of those lyrics, and they were made on the same day, in the same year. 

OAW: That’s one of those lovely little details that people aren’t going to believe.

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DL: We could prove it. We could send the memos. 

OAW: So there’s experimentation mode, and there’s rehearsal mode; do you get to a point where you have to say, “this is the way we’re going to do this in the concert?” Or do you leave that open? Like maybe it’s going to be different at this concert versus that concert? 

DL: I think right now we had to get to the point that this is how we’re going to do it in the concert. I don’t mean to speak for you, Caroline, but I think both of our wishes are that we will soon be comfortable enough to have more experimentation and improvisation happen live. We were just talking about this this morning. In live performance situations, Caroline I think would prefer to just play the music and not speak at all, and I prefer to chit-chat with the audience, and I will talk way too much. We’re trying to find a balance of creating a storyline within our sets of what song potentially could fold into the next. Can we create little ambient outro-intro worlds? To have it feel less chit-chatty? Which I also want–it’s not just Caroline being like, shut up! I think there will be room there in those things for more experimentation. 

The name

OAW: Where did the name “Ringdown” come from? 

CS: I have a group of friends from grad school who are cosmologists, astrophysicists. They study the cosmic microwave background and the leftover life of The Big Bang. And they’re very fun and they’re also very smart. We were sitting on the beach, and we were saying, “hey, we were thinking of making this band, and we’re trying to find a name that has a feeling of”–How did you describe it, Danni? 

DL: I think it was more embarrassing. I think I was like, “I wanna name that’s like sciencey-sounding or mathematical, I want it to have a very geometric feeling.” We asked them “what is something that is sound-adjacent but sciencey?” 

CS: And they described when two black holes merge those wave forms are called the ringdown, a very particular wave form, and it can have a theoretical sound which people have reproduced, which sounds sort of synthy, and it goes: 

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Both: *oooooooOOOOOOO!!!* 

CS: Some kind of LFO vibe. It hit all the right buttons. And if you Google it there’s another alternative meaning for “ringdown”–in an older telephone system the way they would connect the lines was called the ringdown. But it came more from the astrophysics side. For me it just has this idea of connecting people, in the sense of the vast cosmic space. Something very small, the sound of it. Danni, do you have something else to say? 

DL: Yes, I was trying to gauge if this was a weird thing to say. I really love the concept of two black holes merging and the theory around that and what that means. These two vacuous things sucking everything in around them. Like, which one wins? You know? Or they come together and they create one mega black hole. I like to think that that’s what we’re doing. 

CS: Mega black hole. 

DL: Because I am a scientist and I know for a fact that’s what happens. 

CS: Ha! 

Nonesuch and the future 

CS: I’ve put out a few things with Nonesuch over the last several years and I really love the team. And of course I really admire the legacy of the label, and all the music that they’ve put out over the last few decades that I’ve loved. And they’re always looking for something new. They’ve been really supportive and they’re extremely excited about Ringdown. It’s a different kind of music than what I’ve done with the Attacca Quartet and Sō Percussion. I feel like it’s more aligned with some of their other less classical, more song-based projects. So the logistics are that they’ll put out the single “Two-Step” and then we have several other songs that we’re planning to get ready, and possibly continue to release things as singles over the next several months through the summer, with the idea that there would be a full album. My guess is that would be sometime early fall. But there’s nothing set yet. 

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DL: I think the really cool thing, and the thing that I’m excited about, is that we started releasing stuff independently–it’s been exciting to do it that way and break the standard. I think the way that music is being consumed is so different than it was even five years ago, ten years ago, but it’s been really cool to have label support who is also willing to try and do it that way. To be like, “yeah, great, if you wanna keep releasing some singles let’s see how that goes.” I feel really grateful to have their support in general, but also to have the support to together try to do this in a slightly different way. 

OAW: What are you thinking next in terms of live performances? 

CS: We [had] a little showcase at SXSW, under a more classical umbrella. And then Big Ears, which is the full show as is. I think from that we’ll hopefully get more consistent bookings. Then Carnegie Hall which we’re really excited about. That’s more in the commission style where we’re collaborating with Decoda, a chamber ensemble that I know really well, and making something for and with them. And then also there’s Public Records in New York which is a proper full Ringdown show, that’s April 17th. And earlier in April, the Bach Festival in Germany, in a town called Erfurt, the Thüringer Bach Festival, and I’m there as a composer to write a brand new cantata. We’ll do a Ringdown show or partial show there as well and a couple more summer shows in the works we can’t announce yet. So right now there’s lots of interesting one-offs, but the idea would be really nice to do a consistent tour where we’re playing a lot of the clubs where I’ve gotten to see some of my favorite bands. 

DL: The hilarious reality to me right now is this show at Carnegie Hall with Decoda that is considered a “commission” and Caroline and I are to compose a world premiere. And I, Danni Lee, singer-songwriter, who has never been commissioned for anything–I’m like, “I’m sorry, you’re telling me the very first commission is Carnegie Hall?” I was like, “recipe for hate mail.” 

OAW: Do you have any plans to fold in your previously existing material into the Ringdown repertoire? 

DL: We’ve added two songs, which we did last night, that are “Caroline repertoire.” We did a version–what we call “Ringdown-ified”–a version of “Other Song” that Caroline has recorded with I think probably everyone you’ve ever worked with? Everyone wants to get their hands on “Other Song.” And I feel really honored to now have a Ringdown version of it.

DL: And then Caroline does this piece called “What are you after?” that we’ve also created a version with an intro looped bird sound.

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CS: Danni is very good at bird sounds.

DL: I was a weird kid. But some of the stuff that is Ringdown, like the Haydn stuff, we’re both taking bits from our past individual selves and putting them together. So the lyrics of “Thirst” are something that I wrote as Danni Lee several years ago, I think probably in 2017, that are just now being born. There are a couple of specific Danni Lee tracks that we were like, “we should Ringdown-ify that.” 

CS: “Wonder.” We should do “Wonder.”

DL: But I think for the most part, we’re pretty new. I’m really excited to make something new this week. 

CS: Yeah, it’s been a busy couple of months and now we’re getting the show tight. 

DL: But I feel like with you and I both, the second you take away freedom of making–that’s when you and I both want to do it. It’s like if we had two weeks of nothing, we would probably just plant a garden.

Music that makes people fall in love

OAW: What would you ask the other person if you were interviewing them?

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CS: Danni, right now what kind of song do you wanna make, the next thing, what’s your dream? 

DL: I immediately want to just go to a joke answer though! The joke answer was I want to make something that makes everybody want to live, laugh, love. 

CS: Oh my god! 

DL: The real answer, and this will always be my answer to this question, is I want to make something that gives someone the confidence to send it to their crush as a flirt. And every time I try to talk about this, I feel like people are weird. All I want is to make music that makes people fall in love. 

CS: I really love that. We both had experiences with songs like that, like “this makes me think of you and I don’t know how to say this thing.” 

DL: Which is funny because I really care about lyrics. So in the beginning of our flirt, we’re sending each other music and Caroline would always just be listening to the music and how the chord progressions evoke feelings in her. She’s never listening to the lyrics, she would send me songs that were like, “I don’t really like you, I wanna break up,” and I was like, “did you listen to this actually?” OK, now I have to think of a really nice question to ask you, because you know it’s hard for me to be genuinely serious. 

CS: Mm-hm. 

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DL: Caroline?

CS: Yes, Danni? 

DL: What is “The Beech Tree” about? 

CS: Oh, my God! I always think about “Beech Tree” as the thing that I wrote when I had very little time. I was like, I need to make the first thing that comes out of my body. The first thing that comes out of my head. The thing that I need to hear right now and not question any part of it. 

DL: OK. But what was the thing that you needed to hear? 

CS: I can’t describe that in words. We’re talking about Music. The end! 

DL: I ask Caroline this question all the time because I don’t understand how she ever was able to write one song that has every human emotion that anyone has ever felt, ever, all at once. 

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CS: I can’t think about it. We should Ringdownify that one. 

DL: Just add a big booming synth. 

CS: Arpeggiator? 

DL: Open up that envelope! 

CS: Yeah!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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